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February 20, 2008

A 27-Year Computer Diet

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The first significant portable computer debuted 27 years ago. It was Adam Osborne's Osborne I which weighed 24.5 pounds. It appeared not long after the launch of the famous IBM PC, when IBM compatibility wasn't an important sales factor. For the record, it had a Zilog Z80 processor and the CP/M operating system, both commonly found in early PCs.

In the fall of 1982, Compaq unveiled its first personal computer, a portable weighing 28 pounds that had the virtue of being completely IBM-compatible. (To be fully-compatible, a computer had to have either an Intel 8088 or 8086 processor, run Microsoft's operating system and -- most crucially -- have a BIOS that worked exactly like the one IBM used. The BIOS is a hard-coded, chip-based operating system that mediates between the hardware and the main operating system.) By 1983, compatibility was becoming a Big Deal. Normally, it didn't matter much. But if a user hit an incompatibility when something really important had to be done, he was shafted.

And today? Apple's new MacBook Air weighs all of three pounds! And it can run Microsoft Windows if one makes the effort and pays some extra money.

Adam Osborne and Osborne computer

Steve Jobs and MacBook Air computer

IBM seems to be out of the personal computer business and Compaq was merged into Hewlett-Packard. And Osborne? It crashed in the fall of 1983, the first well-known personal computer company to do so.

Adam Osborne, the man behind the Osborne was born in Thailand in 1939 to British parents. Following graduation from university in England in 1961, he emigrated to the USA, eventually becoming known as a writer and publisher of computer books. After the demise of his computer company he launched a software firm, Paperback Software. This venture failed when he lost a lawsuit by Lotus Development. It was alleged that Osborne's spreadsheet's user interface mimicked too closely that of Lotus 1-2-3, at the time a top spreadsheet program. His health starting to crack, Osborne left the Berkeley Hills for India in 1992, where he died in 2003.

I crossed Osborne's path twice. Once was at a personal computer show in San Francisco where he was manning the Paperback Software stand hawking his products. We chatted for a couple of minutes but I didn't need any of his programs and continued on my way.

In 1991 Osborne and I were on the same panel at the APL programming language convention. Before we went on stage he mostly grumbled about lawyers, this being a little more than a year after having lost the Lotus case.

Osborne was born the same year as me. He flew far higher and probably fell a bit lower. Such is life.



posted by Donald at February 20, 2008


This is, perhaps, a good time to try to rekindle a discussion that fell flat the first time I broached it.

The constant refrain among liberal arts types is that computer programming and hardware knowledge is boring and inhuman... and, thus, only of interest to people who don't experience passion and excitement.

My question: How do you know this? If you've never put in the time to master a programming language, how do you know that programming is boring and unsatifying? Are you just making excuses for your own laziness?

The PC has radically transformed the arts... moreso than any invention since the printing press. Of course, I know plenty of artists who are not making excuses, who have learned the skills and are making big bucks.

Maybe one of you who remains stuck in the era of the printed word can answer my question.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on February 21, 2008 2:38 PM

He flew far higher and probably fell a bit lower

Considering he's, you know, dead, it's a reasonable assumption that he fell a lot lower!

Posted by: Peter on February 21, 2008 3:13 PM

Interesting info, tks. I hadn't realized Osborne was dead. I remember that first Osborne portable -- seemed downright miraculous. A 7" screen if I remember right. I had a friend who had one, and we were all very jealous of him. Imagine being able to take your computer with you.

As for ST's question, I think it's a great one. As an artsy and an aging Boomer, I'm probably midway between ST (who has adapted well to the new digital world) and a lot of my friends, who have simply given up, depressed that the world has passed them by. I'll never be any good at sophisticated programs, let alone programming. But, heck, I can run a blog and play with iLife programs. It keeps me fairly young and cheery, or at least feeling like I'm taking part in life. It really is amazing how many people my age and older aren't even trying any longer. They might hire someone to make 'em a website, and be happy enough to use email. But anything beyond that? It just seems to piss them off, or depress them. Younger people these days seem to pop out of the womb with Photoshop and Dreamweaver skills. Lucky them!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 21, 2008 4:37 PM

I can not speak for Artsy types, but I am a professional programmer (.NET, Java, Oracle, etc) who has an absolute passion for music.

The point that I would like to make is that I often find people who have absolutely no interest in, say, Math, Comp Sci, Programming, or whatever, seem to have no interest in Logic.

I don't mean that they are uninterested in learning Propositional Calculus, but that they have no interest in making (or, possibly, understanding) sound arguments.

This often means that they have difficulty understanding the role of a "Devil's Advocate". But, more importantly, they seem to have a very difficult time NOT personalizing any small debate or discussion.

-- example --
somebody: blah blah blah
Me: Well, Danish men are amongst the tallest, on average, at 6'1", whereas, Chinese men are about 5'6".
Sarah: But Yao Ming is over 7 feet tall.
Me: I understand. But we are talking about averages. With over a billion Chinese people you are guaranteed to meet people well above and below the median
Sarah: And my friend Fan Wu is 5' 9".
Me: Nevermind, it is not important.
Sarah: Whatever.
-- End of example --

The idea, often from them, is that they are very feeling people and that you can be a little cold. But I dont feel that way at all.

I am quite the sensitive little girl. Hell, you should have seen the rant I left on MB's latest food posting.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on February 21, 2008 5:36 PM

That was my beloved first computer, a five-pound Epson laptop eunning CP/M. What I find interesting is that since acquiring that computer in 1985, my activities on the computer have remained unchanged. Most of the time I spend with the computer has always been spent online. Before the internet and web we had computer buletin boards and subscription based services like the Source and CompuServe and later AOL. Other than that, I use it for my sporadic writing efforts.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 21, 2008 6:53 PM

ST -- What would be interesting is to find out how many lib-arts types have ever programmed. Better yet, how many have actually designed and programmed systems.

I have. When I had my demographic data business I had to roll my own software, and it got pretty complicated because data had to be read in from some sort of file system and then manipulated into 2, 3, 4+ dimensional arrays so that APL (and, later, J) could chew on them and spit formatted results into yet other files.

I'm poor on logic, it so happens. Boolean stuff in near-impossible for me to work with. I tended to view system design as a kind of art project; I could visualize the thing, and programming it was simply working out the details.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 21, 2008 7:10 PM

APL was quite the language, wasn't it? I remember writing programs in APL that were short, short, short, but way, way powerful. And they looked so hieroglyphic! Really abstract, really symbolic, almost thaumaturgical in their hyper-compressed abstraction. Every APL program I wrote looked beautiful and elegant, concise, clean and strong. Even when they bonked!

They don't make languages like that anymore. Or maybe they do, but all I ever see these days is Java and VB, and those look like English on the page. Almost as bad as COBOL.

Gimme that old mysterious hermetic Paracelsian APL any day.

Too bad about Osborne, though. I used to watch a great early eighties tech show called Fast Forward, up here in Ontario. Osborne was a frequent talking head, and he had a real charisma about him, an intensity that was right up there on the screen. Not surprised that he burned out, died young. Types like him tend to. RIP, AO.

Posted by: PatrickH on February 21, 2008 7:55 PM

"The constant refrain among liberal arts types is that computer programming and hardware knowledge is boring and inhuman... and, thus, only of interest to people who don't experience passion and excitement."

Really? I'm a liberal arts guy working in web development, and I marvel at and totally rely on those "inhuman" programmers. I can make a website user-friendly and look pretty, but I can't set up the back-end because my mind just doesn't work that way. We need all kinds of intelligence in my field.

Posted by: JV on February 21, 2008 9:39 PM

btw, a programmer I know had a shirt that said "Code is poetry." I agree. And another btw, I don't know a single liberal arts type person who would disagree. Once again, ST, I don't know where you're coming from.

Posted by: JV on February 21, 2008 9:45 PM

I remember writing programs in APL that were short, short, short, but way, way powerful.

Both of you sirs need to thank the Compiler Gods.

I wrote assembler, operating on the bare metal at speeds and temperatures incomprehensible to you 'language' people. And now my cell phone has more power than I ever fathomed could exist, and I can hardly change the ringer.

Man, I miss coding.

Posted by: Scott on February 21, 2008 10:57 PM

Shouting Thomas: I'm one of those liberal arts types, but I'm happy to admit that I'm a much better writer and a more precise thinker today because I learned to program as a kid and participated in the early single-line BBS scene. I wrote a brief piece about the experience here.

For what it's worth, I think the number of writers, artists, and humanities types who think that programming is "inhuman" or inelegant is pretty small these days.

Posted by: Jeff on February 21, 2008 11:46 PM

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